When politicians encounter personal crises, why aren’t they able to defend themselves against the media?
Omnipresent, aware of everything in a world where nothing stays secret very long, easily moralistic and instantaneous, the media is nowadays merciless when it comes to carrying rumors of politicians’ misconducts. Particularly in the spotlight, politicians are watched all the time, and media scandals follow one another at an increasingly fast pace. The public opinion, real “queen of the world” according to Jacques Julliard, is nowadays very sensitive to the slightest inappropriate or inadequate word or action. The government, as well as political parties, can hardly indulge in ignoring the public opinion when one of their members is caught in the storm. And yet, even though the number of crises increases and lessons could be learnt, they make the same communication mistakes over and over despite the central position communicating has in the political arena. It should be by now part of their essential know-hows.
How can such a paradox be explained?
The controversy that has affected Michèle Alliot-Marie since the revelations on her vacation in Tunisia is in this regard a unique case. And similarly is the case of a presidential advisor, who is also a local elected representative, who was accused of speeding while driving to the General council of the Eure department in a presidential car.
Despite the many examples before them, both have illustrated the public authorities’ inability to understand and play by some of the new media rules. Their lack of preparation and knowledge of the appropriate reactions illustrated their inability to anticipate reactions when being personally attacked.
Because of the new media environment, the “off” messages no longer exist. Politicians can be trapped at any time by journalists who never turn off their microphones, but also and more generally they can be taped or photographed by any citizen carrying a movie camera or even a cell phone. One needs to know how to defend oneself in such situations.
In fact, when facing an emerging media crisis, the rules are simple: you have to tell all there is to tell at once and preferably to one media!
Above all, half-explanations or partial truths must be avoided. To content one’s-self with that means taking the increasingly recognized risk to get tangled up in an infernal cycle of statements followed by revelations. These could eventually lead to new statements fueling the controversy and the media escalation.
Thus, the lessons which can be taught from Michelle Alliot-Marie’s difficulties, and Eric Woerth’s before her, are simple.
On one hand, one should never tell something that can be contradicted afterwards. As tempted one might be to minimize the issue, truth helps better. Choosing transparency is a way to anticipate criticism and defuse a media explosion. On the contrary, successive statements kills one’s credibility
and makes one’s explanations inaudible. The way François Fillon diffused the Canard Enchaîné’s revelations on his trip to Egypt is exemplary in this regard.
On another hand, even though it is necessary to say everything, the temptation to talk too much has to be avoided. Making endless speeches is a mistake as it worsens a media crisis instead of shutting it off. While a politician usually has no easy access to the media, when he/she is implicated in an affair, he/she is suddenly invited to talk on all the media and to react to every new information or fact. Going over numerous TV and radio sets, giving many interviews to the press, in very hard psychological conditions, with various degrees of pressure and often in an extreme rush, those politicians are doomed to vary in their explanations. Journalists – it is their job after all– are very good at asking the same questions differently and obtaining different answers or additional details, which keeps the media controversy going. Consistency is essential in communication. As a rule, one must define key messages and stick to them durably so as to be heard, understood and convincing, especially in times of crisis. Michèle Alliot-Marie, just like many others before her, by delivering multiple and different messages depending on the time and the media, could only make her explanations sound confusing and less credible.
Even if the rules of the media game have changed, politicians seem to have a hard time to adjust. A better understanding and practice of those golden rules of crisis communication are yet necessary to prevent political action from losing credibility endlessly and to avoid the fatal question: “who is next?”